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before the fall by noah hawleyOn a foggy summer night, eleven people — ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter — depart Martha’s Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs — the painter — and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul’s family. With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the crash and the backstories of the passengers and crew members the mystery surrounding the tragedy heightens. As the passengers’ intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy. Was it merely by dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work?

After alluding to it a bit in my Sunday post, I decided that today I want write a little bit more about my feelings on Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, a book I really enjoyed right up until the ending pretty much wrecked it for me.

Fair warning, this post is going to talk about the ending of Before the Fall – including the reason for the plane crash – in some detail. If you don’t like spoilers, just stop reading now!

Ok, with that out of the way, some context… I got started thinking about the idea of toxic masculinity in fiction after reading a post from Jenny (Reading the End) about male violence in The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan. The post is so full of intelligent rage that I want you to just go read the whole thing. But here are a couple parts in particular that are relevant (bold emphasis mine): 

The helpless anger that women live with every day because that’s the price of admission for us to live in this world, and what else? Because if there’s nothing else — if it’s just another man who decided to hurt people because he couldn’t figure out what to do with his feelings — then don’t come asking me to understand his motives for doing violence. I understood already and I decided it wasn’t enough. …

I am fed up with being asked to imaginatively identify with the men who commit violence while the barest of lip service is paid to the interiority of the women in their orbit. You know how sometimes there are tropes that have lasted so long and been so damaging that you kinda have to retire them for a while? Like how we just need to place a ten-year moratorium on killing TV lesbians? I’d like a break from the glass-shattering fury that consumes my heart every time I read any iteration of the worst story in the whole world, i.e., Once upon a time, a man turned to violence because a woman he wanted to fuck wouldn’t fuck him.

With that for context, on to the book!

For the most part, I loved the way that Before the Fall didn’t feel like a thriller or a mystery, even though it’s marketed that way. The central mystery of the book — why did the plane crash? — feels secondary to exploring the stories of the victims in the crash. And for the most part, it isn’t really much of a mystery to solve — the crash investigators do their work, but “solving” the crash just comes down to finding the flight recorder and listening to the tape which basically explains what happened. The book is very much about characters and the ways in which we interact with each other. 

But that’s precisely why the ending is so unsatisfying. The story is all about complex characters, but the person who actually crashed the plane was so predictably bad, it just felt like a cop-out. The flight recorder reveals the plane was taken down deliberately by the co-pilot, a man who tricked his way on to the flight so he could harass the flight attendant. She broke up with him earlier because he was abusive and unpredictable, but he just wouldn’t accept no. He brought the plane down deliberately in his rage over rejection from a beautiful woman.

And as Jenny said… that’s the worst story in the world: Once upon a time, a man turned to violence because a woman he wanted to fuck wouldn’t fuck him.

Certainly, I don’t think the book is suggesting that the co-pilot’s rage is an excuse for his actions, or even a reason to emphasize with him. But it’s also just so incredibly boring. In a world where convicted rapists are serving fewer than six months in jail and men repeatedly perpetrate mass shootings, another story where another man — for whatever reason — chooses violence and rage in a moment of frustration just left me feeling disappointed and annoyed.  

That story is boring. That story is common. And that conclusion doesn’t serve the complexity and interest in creative storytelling that’s so wonderful in the rest of the book. 

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links through Amazon. If you make a purchase through any of those links, I will receive a small commission.

currently June 20 2016

Briefly | The boyfriend and I spent the weekend at my parent’s cabin in Wisconsin. We had a little celebration for my sister’s birthday, and Father’s Day. It was a pretty brief trip, but worth it just to go swimming for part of Saturday afternoon.

Reading | I finally finished a book! My first and (so far) only finished book of June was Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, which I really enjoyed right up until the ending wrecked the book for me. I don’t want to spoil much, so for now I’ll just say that Jenny’s (Reading the Endpost about toxic masculinity and The Association of Small Bombs articulates some of the issues I ended up having with the way the central mystery of Before the Fall — what caused the plane crash — ended up being resolved. While at the cabin I spent my time flipping between Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley and You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein — both very funny, rather perfect as beach-side reads.

Watching | My Person of Interest binge is almost finished. I got through all four seasons available on Neflix, then splurged to buy the current season on Amazon. The series finale is this week, so I’ll finish up shortly after that. It’s been quite a run.

Promoting | My blogging BFF Florinda (The 3R’s Blog) proposed a collaborative project for book bloggers to share reviews and favorite reads each month. It sounds pretty great!

Loving | This Washington Post piece by Alexandra Petri, “How to Cover Donald Trump Fairly: A Style Guide,” is my favorite election-related piece written so far. An excerpt:

2. Style is as important as substance. A good post about Donald Trump includes at least one of the following words: “huge,” “great,” “manly,” “terrific,” “incredible,” “fantastic,” “remarkable,” “big”/”bigly,” “immense,” “girthy,” “magisterial,” “gargantuan,” “tumescent.” Ideally, this word would be in the headline. A bad post about Donald Trump includes the words or phrases “puny,” “dangerous,” “Godwin’s law,” “cocktail shrimp in a toupee,” “husk of dead skin and hyperbole,” “garbage fart,” “what results if you accidentally leave Guy Fieri in a microwave.”

Anticipating | Later this month, our community is participating in a mock emergency disaster exercise. It’s going to be a lot of work trying to get photos and write up a story, but I also think it’s going to be a fun challenge. I’ve got some planning to do this week to get ready that I’m actually looking forward to.

Can’t Let It Go | The Tyrannosaurus Rex is pretty popular right now. A group of T. Rexes were seen doing yoga in Ottawa, and a T. Rex even tried to complete the American Ninja Warrior course. Amazing!

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links through Amazon. If you make a purchase through any of those links, I will receive a small commission.

Thoughts on Beachy Reads

This weekend, the boyfriend and I are heading to my parent’s cabin (soon to be retirement home) in northern Wisconsin for some family celebrations. Prepping for the first summer weekend at the lake always gets me thinking about what makes a good beach read.

The kind of book that’s good for a long, warm, boozy afternoon is a rare beast, but after many cabin weekends I’ve got a pretty good idea of what kinds of books work particularly for me. Here are the four things I look for, plus a few books that I think fit the bill for a beach read.

It’s easy to pick up and put back down.

Most of my time at the beach or on the lake is also time spent with other people. While I love a good, absorbing book, one of the things I’ve been working on is remembering that many of the best moments in life happen when you look up off the page and engage with what’s happening around you. A good beach read is one that grabs my attention, but that is also easy dip in and out of as the day goes on.

It has simple prose and a simple plot.

This goes back to to my first quality. Good lake reads are books that don’t take much extra mental energy to read. I tried a Jane Austen book at the cabin once and I just couldn’t do it — classic prose seems to take too much effort. I also need the plot/structure to be relatively straightforward because I’m often too distracted to follow plot jumps or other experimental prose.

It’s not depressing or political.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that beach reads have to all be light and fluffy. I don’t mind reading books that take on substantive topics while I’m by the lake, but I don’t want something that’s entirely grim because I’m just not in the mood for that. And I tend to avoid political books at the beach because I don’t want to get into drawn out conversations about those kinds of topics when I’m with so many other people — nobody likes a current events debate while trying to enjoy a margarita.

It’s a paperback.

This one is negotiable. I prefer to read paperbacks at the lake — they’re lighter, cheaper, and easier to stow away — but I’ll bring a hardcover if that’s what is calling my attention at the time.

With all that in mind, here are a few of my favorite books that I also think would be great reads by the beach:

  • Packing for Mars by Mary Roach — I was tempted to recommend my favorite Mary Roach book, Stiff, but figured a book on dead bodies doesn’t scream “beach read.” But Packing for Mars, all about what we do to prepare astronauts for the rigors of space travel, is pretty much perfect. It’s funny, has short and simple chapters, and is full of fun facts to share with other readers.
  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters — “Beautiful Ruins is the story of an almost-love affair that begins on the Italian coast in 1962…and is rekindled in Hollywood fifty years later.” I read this book on the beach in Greece last fall and just adored it.
  • The Great Beanie Baby Bubble by Zac Bissonnette — If you have any nostalgia for the Beanie Baby crazy of the 1990s, then this book is a must read. The story behind the craze, and eccentric creator Ty Warner, is such a fun read.
  • Americanah By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — At first glace, a story about race and identity in America seems like a tricky choice as a beach read. But the love story at the core of this book keeps everything moving along, and Adichie’s observations about how we talk about race in the United States are often very funny.
  • Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman — Just out of college  in 1986, Susan and her friend Claire decide to travel around the globe, starting in the People’s Republic of China. This memoir heads in such crazy directions, it’s hard to even describe. I loved it on audio, and I think it’d be great on the beach.

I’m still trying to decide what books I’m actually going to bringing with me this weekend. I’m leaning towards Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam (which breaks my paperback rule, but otherwise seems excellent) and You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein (a collection of essays by the head writer of Inside Amy Schumer I grabbed at BEA). But that all may change as we’re heading out the door tomorrow — given my abysmal reading record so far this month, I definitely need to go with mood reading now more than ever.

What beachy reads are you planning to pick up this summer?

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links through Amazon. If you make a purchase through any of those links, I will receive a small commission.

Currently | June 13, 2016

currently june 13 2016

I love coming across a good HEART OF DARKNESS reference.

Briefly | I’m feeling so sad and so defeated by the mass shooting in Orlando yesterday. I’m not sure what it takes to accept that there’s a problem in the United States related to gun violence, and that we need to do something to address it. President Obama’s comments after a PBS News Hour town hall earlier this month have been on my mind, even more so since yesterday.

Reading | Reading has been incredibly slow so far this month. I decided to put Swamplandia! aside for something a little more fast-paced, Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. It’s a pretty good page-turning thriller so far, and comes with a Liberty Hardy endorsement, so I’m optimistic it’ll stay good.

Watching | I missed watching the Tony’s last night — we were at a friend’s house for game night — but I’m hoping I can catch the highlights from the broadcast online today.

Listening | The boyfriend and I are off to the lake this weekend, so we’ll need an audio book for the car. I’m trying to settle on something we’ll both like — I’m thinking Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, but we’ll see.

Cooking | Summer salads are here! We had a caprese salad over the weekend that was pretty delicious.

Blogging | I reviewed some books this week — Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and LaRose by Louise Erdrich. Yay!

Promoting | I got to interview Mary Roach for Book Riot! I learned a bunch of new stuff about the reporting and writing of her newest book, Grunt, that I managed to pull together in a relatively coherent Q&A.

Hating | I had a lot of things percolating for “hating” this week, but the events in Orlando over the weekend made all of that seem petty. So I’ll just say I hate that we’re at such a polarized moment in our country that there seems to be no interest, by some, in having a reasonable conversation about what should be done to start addressing an epidemic of gun violence.

Loving | This weekend was also my sister Jenny’s birthday. She’s an amazing sister, and has grown into such a good friend and travel companion. I couldn’t ask for a better sister in my life.

Can’t Let It Go | I’m stealing this last one from the NPR Politics podcast, which uses this prompt for their last segment every week. This week, I can’t let go of the fact that two of my favorite actors from Hamilton — Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr) and Chris Jackson (George Washington) — had small roles on Person of Interest! Leslie Odom Jr. played a privacy terrorist/advocate named Peter Collier for a multi-episode arc, and Chris Jackson was Random Inept Security Guard for one episode. So funny!

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links through Amazon. If you make a purchase through any of those links, I will receive a small commission.

larose and homegoing

During my vacation last month to Milwaukee and Chicago, I found myself totally absorbed in a couple of big, epic family stories. While they’re set in totally different places, both authors are really skilled at weaving together historical and contemporary threads. And despite covering huge topics, both books manage to feel specific and character-driven in a way that kept me turning the pages.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s newest novel, LaRose, starts out with a rather horrifying premise. While out hunting deer, Landreaux Iron kills five-year-old Dusty Ravich, the youngest child of a neighboring family. Law enforcement rules the shooting an accident, but Landreaux can’t accept that answer. After consulting with their ancestors via a sweat lodge, Landreaux and his wife, Emmaline, give their son, LaRose, to the Ravich family as an act of atonement. Peter, his wife Nola, and his daughter Maggie welcome the boy into their family, although LaRose maintains a connection to his parents and siblings, tieing the two families together while other forces in their community threaten to topple the carefully balanced peace.

It’s hard to say enough wonderful things about this book. It manages to perfectly balance beautiful writing, a compelling plot, and historical context in a way that’s easy to read while still being substantial. Maybe that’s sounds a little snobby, I don’t know, but it’s the perfect kind of balance I feel like I look for in fiction. While the story of how the Irons and Ravich families manage to survive after a terrible loss is gripping, I also loved the way Erdrich weaves in history – LaRose is the most recent in a line of family members with that name, all previously women, with their own harrowing stories. Erdrich’s just an incredible writer, who is able to blend history and contemporary storytelling so beautifully – I really want to dive into more of her backlist later this summer.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I stood in line to get a copy of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi at Book Expo America because a bunch of the writers at Book Riot have been raving about this one, and for good reason – it’s pretty stellar. Homegoing starts with the story of two half sisters living in different villages in Ghana. Effia is forced to marry an Englishman who is part of the British slave trade in that region. Esi is a prisoner of the British who is eventually sold into the Gold Coast slave trade and send to America. Each chapter of the book follows the generations on both sides of the family, looking at the way the slave trade affected individuals on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, touching on colonization, the Civil War, the Great Migration, and on into the present.

This book is just so great. I know I’m going to be recommending it a lot. I loved the structure, which is right in between interconnected short stories and an epic family drama. You get a sense of the big story of these families and how they fit into history, but every chapter is also a portrait of an individual at those times. It manages to be both very specific and incredibly broad, which feels like such an achievement. And through all of that, it’s just a really great read – I started this one on my plane ride home from BEA and hated putting it down until I was finished.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links through Amazon. If you make a purchase through any of those links, I will receive a small commission.